Jewish Mother Russia

The Worst Good Idea Ever
Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 23 2009 7:00 AM

Jewish Mother Russia

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BIROBIDZHAN, Russia—Never have I heard so many snide comments about an upcoming trip. "Don't bother coming back," said a co-worker, laughing nervously. Birobidzhan has a way of making people laugh. Several of my colleagues were convinced I was joking. The word itself is not inherently funny, but the idea for which it stands is bizarre enough and its history is macabre enough that it makes people giggle. It is also ridiculously far away.

Map of Russia. Click image to expand.

So, where am I? I am just about as far away from my home in Moscow as Moscow is from New York. To get here, I endured an eight-hour Aeroflot flight followed by two and a half hours aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway, finally disembarking less than 50 miles short of the Chinese border at tracks so poorly lit that I had to ask someone where the station was. When I finally found the station, I discovered it has two signs, one in Hebrew letters and one in Russian. The Hebrew faces the tracks, and though it is a fair bet that virtually no one on the Trans-Siberian can read it, it communicates all the necessary information. (I assume it says Birobidzhan, but I can't read it, either.) The Russian faces the town and says "Railroad Station," and this, too, is all anyone needs to know.

This part of Russia is hazy territory, geographically speaking. Have you ever considered where Siberia ends? Any Russian schoolchild knows that it begins at the Ural Mountains, but few have ever considered the other side of Siberia. But that is precisely where I am: on the other side of Siberia, in the Russian Far East, where the Jewish Autonomous Region was declared to exist in 1934.

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I am here to write the history of the worst good idea ever. Autonomism was once the rational alternative to Zionism. Whoever came up with the idea of moving Jews to the Middle East, to live on arid land surrounded by hostile Arabs? Jews should live where they are, speak the language they speak, and enjoy the protection of an established military.

Jews never had land in Tsarist Russia. Specially formed committees began prospecting for an appropriate place for Jews almost as soon as the Soviet Union was formed, following the Russian Civil War, in 1922. They tried the Crimea and parts of Ukraine and found them too densely populated for the task of resettling a million or more people. And then they stumbled upon an underpopulated border region in the Far East. According to a prospecting report written in 1927, the area was distinguished by difficult terrain. The mountains, while not especially high, were formed by rocks meeting at such extreme angles that traversing the mountains, even on horseback, was prohibitively difficult. The terrain in the valley was mostly wetland. Life in the valley was made especially difficult by blood-sucking insects of several varieties. The prospecting committee reported that people wore nets and eventually adjusted to the insects, but the cattle suffered terribly. The locals tended toward a nomadic lifestyle, largely because of the difficulty of maintaining pasture. The locals, in any case, were few—mostly Cossacks forcibly exiled here in the 1860s in order to fortify the borders.

That's right. The rational Soviet alternative to the crazy concept of settling the Jews in a Middle Eastern desert surrounded by Arabs was to settle the Jews in Far Eastern swampland surrounded by Cossacks. "The locals can barely imagine life in a densely populated country," the prospectors warned, "and view the planned land settlement as a looming catastrophe."

Birobidzhad train station with bilingual signage. Click image to expand.
Birobidzhan train station with bilingual signage

That it was. The first train with 600 new settlers from Ukraine and Belarus onboard arrived May 28, 1928. At what was then called Tikhonkaya (Little Quiet) Station, they were met by snow, which would soon be followed by torrential downpours—heavy summer rains were the norm, but this was extraordinary even by Birobidzhan standards. The land they planned to work was flooded for most of that summer, making planting impossible. Cattle were brought in for the new settlers, and an anthrax epidemic ensued. Whoever could manage it scrambled to return home.

Such were the beginnings of the Jewish Autonomous Region, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year.

Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century. She is writing a book about Birobidzhan for Nextbook/Schocken.